Because the Christian community still struggles with sin, there will always be those who seek help from the church even if they are not truly in need. Paul would have known how carefully the synagogues of his day had to guard their community purse lest first-century swindlers take away resources from those who truly had nothing. This reality colors Paul’s outlook and helps to explain why he says some of the things that he does in 1 Timothy 5:3–16.
Widows whom the church should support, the apostle explains in verse 5, are characterized by loneliness and prayer. First, they are “left all alone.” This merely reiterates the principle that a widow with children who can support her should rely on those children (v. 4), and it also looks forward to Paul’s rebuke of professing Christians who do not support their impoverished relatives (v. 8). That the true widow is one with no family on which to depend is reinforced by the statement that she sets her hope in God and “continues in supplications and prayers night and day” (v. 5). A true widow is so desperate that her supplications or heartfelt pleas for rescue never cease. She is perpetually on the verge of destitution, and without relatives she has no reason to expect any lasting relief. But the widow whom the believing community must support is not only impoverished, she is also godly — a woman who intercedes for others and hopes in the Lord to provide for her. Such a lady models the piety of the Psalms (Pss. 7:1; 20:7).
In contrast to the godly woman who is focused on loving God and others is the dead, self-indulgent woman (1 Tim. 5:6). Paul is likely talking about some widows in Ephesus who never should have been supported in the first place and who have only spent aid from the church wastefully. Their “self-indulgent” ways may have included both sexual immorality and the gratuitous pursuit of luxury, both condemned in Scripture (1 Cor. 6:9–10; James 5:1–6). Here we see depicted the “new Roman woman,” whose ungodly feminism the church can never support. John Calvin says that Paul “censures those who abuse their widowhood for this purpose, that, being loosed from the marriage yoke, and freed from every annoyance, they may lead a life of pleasant idleness.”
One of the good and necessary consequences that we can draw from 1 Timothy 5:3–16 is that the church is not required to support financially those widows who are able for whatever reason to support themselves. However, the church is called to remember these women, especially if they have no relatives, and show them the love of Christ through friendship. Is there a lonely widow or widower in your church that you can visit this week?